A product that is tasteless and can undertake any flavor, odorless - it can take on any odor, colorless - ready for any shade of the rainbow. Its smooth texture can add an interesting impact to either savory or sweet dishes with the additional feature that it can also acquire any shape or form. These intriguing characteristics belong to the extract known as gelatin.
Its history can be traced back to Ancient Egypt before arriving in Europe during the Middle Ages. The process to extract the collagen from the bones of animals was a tedious event involving hours of boiling, followed by simmering with egg whites to clarify and purify. Next, filtering through special bags and then drying into sheets. But such was the popularity of dishes made with gelatin at this time that it became a necessary task. Often colored with varying ingredients including spinach, saffron and egg yolks the kitchens of the day were expected to produce huge table centerpieces with molds often of castles or buildings with intricate turrets and animals such as the swan. The English Victorian era was another time when the gelatinous dishes became gastronomic works of art, not just interesting as food but for mirth and amusement at the dinner table.
In 1845 Peter Cooper registered the US patent of what we now know as Jell-O. Frank Woodward bought the product and as the ice box became more popular so did the product. By the 1930’s in the Midwest everyone sat down to ‘Golden Glow’ a dish of Jell-O made with grated carrot and canned pineapple served with mayo. Nowadays, cherry is found to be the most popular flavor produced with 80% of us consuming just nine of the twenty flavors available. When adding fruit to Jell-O remember not to use fresh pineapple, kiwi, papaya and a few others or it won’t set.
Renowned chef Heston Blumenthal has a fondness for experimenting with Jell-O or jelly for the UK term. He has served the savory ‘Jelly of Quail’ as well as a ‘Beetroot and Orange Jelly’ with the beetroot jelly tasting of orange and vice versa. But it was when he created his Victorian Feast earlier this year that he really raised the culinary heights. He dreamt up a luminous absinthe Jell-O incorporating an adult toy for a self wobbling effect.
Last June a Jell-O Mold competition was held in Brooklyn, NY with the winner creating real looking jewels where even the gold parts were made edible with gold leafed gum paste. Other entries included a box of eggs and a chicken. The London UK based duo of Bompas and Parr calling themselves ‘Jellymongers’ have devised a way to create copper molds in just about any shape imaginable with the St Paul’s cathedral particularly revered, tailor made from $485.
Jell-O can be a real alternative to junk food that is healthy, low fat and yet fun. It also provides the mouth with a rich feel as it melts at a similar temperature to the human body. And in these cash strapped times it is an incredibly cheap ingredient that with a bit of imagination could really put the wow factor on any menu.
Photos courtesy of jellymongers.co.uk, Channel4, and flickr - Keeem, sliakyshiva.